'The Rum Diary' Director Bruce Robinson On Ceremonial Cups and Cock Fighting

on October 31, 2011 by Amy Nicholson
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robinsoninterview.pngWhen Bruce Robinson and Johnny Depp flew back from location-scouting for The Rum Diary in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, miles outside of Los Angeles the engine on their tiny plane clicked off. For two minutes of altitude loss, the disgruntled ex-director and one of the world's biggest box office starsboth a bit drunk on red winestared at each other in shock and started laughing. It's a scene that would have fit right in the film: two artists who live so in the moment that they truly don't give a damn. And then the engine kicked back on, Robinson and Depp settled back into their seats, and they set about making a movie in honor of their kindred spirit, Hunter S. Thompson. If you've seen Robinson's early films like the grotty booze dramedy Withnail & I, you know he's got a pipeline to Thompson's psyche. (Ralph Steadman, Thompson's signature artist of ink blobs and red scrawl, even did the film's poster.) But if you haven't seen Robinson's films in a while, it's because he gave them up in 1992 after an "awful, depressing, insulting, nasty" shooting the Uma Thurman thriller Jennifer 8 for Paramount. What lured him back into the movie-making game? Says Robinson, it was all his death-defying bond with Johnny Depp.

Johnny Depp is playing Hunter S. Thompson again. But this is a different Hunter S. Thompsonalmost a pre-Hunter S. Thompson.

The novel was written when Hunter was 20 years old and wasn't published for, I think, about 38 years-so certainly from my perspective, I didn't want to do a kind of Gonzo thing. And I'd read that Hunter was an extremely handsome young man and was actually a male model in Puerto Rico to try to supplement his life and incomehe used to do modeling for clothes and stuff. I saw a couple of these pictures and he did not look like Hunter S. Thompson. He looked like a handsome young guy. So in my discussions with Johnny, I didn't want to reprise the shorts and the shaved head look. I wanted Johnny to stay the handsome man which he is, a kind of Cary Grant figure rather than a Hunter thing. To me, it's more interesting. There is something comedic about the Fear and Loathing-type of Hunter that I don't think would have been would have been right for this film because he's much more of an observer looking for his voice as a journalist. And when he found the voice, that's when he sort of became Hunterthe Hunter Thompson that became famous. But at this stage of the game, he wasn't him at all. There is a scene that's actually cut from the movie where we're trying to explain why Johnny is in his 30s rather than his 20s. But it wasn't really necessary. I don't think anybody ever asked that question with respect to Johnny so we just cut that scene out.

You have to admire that Johnny Depp is able to actual regress in time playing Hunter S. Thompsonit's been 13 years since he played middle-aged Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Johnny is, I think, 46 or 47 years old but you look at him as somebody 30 or 35you just buy that, don't you?

Yeah, what's his secret? You were with him on set. Does he bathe in virgin's blood?

I think it's a more easily available liquid than that. [Laughs] Good quality red wine. He leads a pretty wholesome life, you know. I mean, he's a very hard-working actor. One of those things that really amazed me actually about Johnny is he types out all the dialogue for the scene and that's the way he learns the lines: by typing it out. He never comes back to me and says, "Oh, this line sucks. I don't wanna say thisI wanna say this." You know, once or twice in the entire shoot he said to me, "Can we make this scene simpler or can we squeeze out some of this dialogue?" I think literally in two scenes that happened so I cut it out and we went back the next day and just shot it. He's a fantastically pleasant person to work with in those terms, a really professional actor. He comes on set and knows his lines. I have worked with actors who come on the set and they wanna learn their lines on film, you know. You're doing 17, 19 takes to try and get the dialogue. With Johnny, three takes and we're moving on. Terrific from my perspective because that's how I like to work, too.

I'm curious about the influence of Hunter S. Thompson on the film. He was alive when it was announced, but died before it went into production. Do you think this film was at all different because he was a major person in Johnny's life?

He was a very active person, yeah, in Johnny's life. They were genuinely close friends. It's very weird actually. I live in the English countryside, miles from anywhere, and when I'd literally written two pages of this screenplay I got into the car one Sunday morning to drive into town to get the newspaper and stuff, and they said Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide. So he never even read the script, but Johnny seems to think he would've been very happy with it. So that's good enough for me. You know, the difficulty with someone like Hunter S. Thompson is he has a very, very powerful voice. There's literally hardly a line from the book in the screenplayone, two, maybe three lines from the whole book in the screenplaybecause I can't write a script from a book, if you see what I mean. I have to read the book and assimilate it. Try to make it my own and throw the book away and then write the story down. So there were one or two dynamic shifts, the least of which is getting rid of a character named Yeamon, who's a big character in the novel but doesn't exist in the film. And also shifting the girl in the novel over to be Sanderson's [Aaron Eckhart] girlfriend to get some more sexual tension. Other than that, did it feel Hunterish Thompsonish? I hope it did.

It felt like you were watching Hunter S. Thompson be born, if that makes sense.

Well, that was the intention in a way. You know, Johnny has that line on the boat, "I've got no voice. I don't know how to write like me." And that's what we were trying to show: by the end of this adventure, he's going off on that boat with his voice, with the power of his voice. He can write like him now. That's what we're trying to say there.

We think of Hunter S. Thompson only as the crazy drinker, but what makes him Hunter S. Thompson in the film is that he becomes politicized. It isn't the drinkinghe's already drinking.

Oh yeah, there are hundreds of thousands of crazy drinkers. [Laughs] Some of them are great writers. There's no books in the bottle, you know. There really isn't. I mean, all of us have been there and back with that kind of stuff. When I sit down to write, I don't think, "Oh, I better open this." Hunter was a really fine and important writer. He was a journalist rather than a novelist, I think, but he was a very important one. He created a genre of his own, he was always part of the story. There were one or two war correspondents and the guy called Ernie Pyle who was an American war correspondent in the Second World War who made themselves part of the story, as well. Pyle was kind of gonzo-esque. But he didn't have Hunter's humor or madnessand when I say madness, by that I mean sanity in a sense, you know, because he was a very sane man as far as I understand it. I only ever met him once and we sat in a room for two hours together and never said a word to each other and then I left. It's kind of weird.

There was a while after Jennifer 8 where you gave up filmmaking. What drew you back in?

I gave up wanting to be a filmmaker because of Jennifer 8, not after it. It was the most unpleasantmost unnecessarily unpleasant, in my viewmost awful, depressing, insulting, nasty experience I've ever had in my entire life as a writer or trying to be a director. I remember walking out ofI won't even say what studio it was-but I walked out of there one day and said to my wife, "That's it. I will never ever ever do that again ever as long as I live." And I really kept the promise. It's 17 years. You know, I was offered a few things along the way and said no. As a matter of fact, I was offered Fear and Loathing, which is curious to recount. Johnny and I talked about that and I said no to it for the very reasons I just illustrated: I didn't want anything to do with it. If that was filmmaking, it wasn't for me. I just thought, "F--k it. I'll just be a writer, thanks." And then 17 years later I was in a villa in Spainand how he found me, I don't knowbut I pick up the phone and it's Johnny and he says, "Have you ever read a book called The Rum Diary?" "No." "Can I send it to you?" So he did and I read it and I wrote the screenplay and he said, "Do you want to direct it?" I must say I was pretty resistant to the proposition. And Johnny kinda chased me, which was extremely flattering coming from the number one box office star on earth kind of chasing an unknown writer who's got cows looking in his window in England. [Laughs] And then we met and we had a really great lunchwith no alcohol involved, by the wayin London. So I said, "Okay, alright. Why not?" You know, I like him immensely. Johnny is a big fan of my film Withnail & I that I did years ago. He's a huge fan of that film. And I think that's the reason he was interested in me for this. So I'm a filmmaker again.

You've been pretty open about the fact that you went sober years ago, but drank during the making of the film. Was there just something about working on this film, the tone or the spirit and decadence of the Caribbean?

Well, I couldn't actually booze when we're working because the hours are so long. Pick up at six in the morning until 11 at night. But certainly on the weekends and stuff, I wasn't immune to the local product. During the actual shooting, Johnny and I had a ritual every morning where we had a chair with Hunter S. Thompson's name on the backJohnny used to smoke Dunhill cigarettes and had a bottle of Chivas Regal on a little table next to Hunter's chair. And so every morning, Johnny and I would pour Chivas Regal into a glass and we'd stick our fingers in it and wipe it behind our ears like perfume for good luck for the day. And that was a ritual. We did it every day. But we didn't drink it. I think at the end of the day, we finished it off. But I'm not someone who really enjoys Scotch. I like good quality red wine.

I wish that at the end of the day, you would come back and the glass would be mysteriously empty.

The glass was mysteriously empty sometimes. It was empty within ten minutes sometimes. [Laughs] I don't know who swigged it. You're thinking of the ghost, right?

Right.

Yeah, well maybe he did. Maybe he did. I don't know.

One thing that struck me about watching the film is even though it's only set a few decades ago, it felt like just such a different time. Could a Hunter S. Thompson even emerge today?

No, I don't think so. I don't think so because it was and is a very different time. I mean, I'm old enough to remember. I'm lucky enough in a sense. I went to drama schoolI started out as an actorand I went to drama school in London in 1964 when the '60s was just boiling up and everything was new and different. And that, in a sense, is paralleled with The Rum Diary. Hunter came up in a completely different dynamic, obviously, because he was an American. But the same thing was happening in the States. This was the world really shrugging off 200 years of its conservative past. It was a really magical time to be alive. And because it was new, the establishment didn't know what they could and couldn't tolerate, so they had to tolerate everything. But today, if a new Hunter emerged, they're not gonna buy into that, I don't think. It's a different time. We now live in a bleak, conservative period where unfortunately money is no longer the servant-it's the deity. It is worshiped now. If money decided that Hunter was a good idea, then that'd be alright. But I don't think it would decide that he's a good idea. And I think he is out of time, in that sense. It was a freer time before AIDS and all the rest of it. Reading Fear and Loathing again a couple years ago, it is curiously dated because it doesn't have the connotations that we now have with drugs. I mean, when you think about taking cocaine now, you cannot stop thinking about drug cartels in Mexico murdering people. The whole thing is so different now. The freedom that was spent in Hunter's dayin my dayhas gone away. So if it is a strength, I think it's one of the strengths of the movie to say: we may have been poor but by God we were free.

But what makes it so interesting is that new generations of college kids immediately grab onto Hunter S. Thompson even though they'll never live in that world.

No, certainly not in our lifetime, I wouldn't have thought. But that's the great thing about Hunter. I think if you see Withnail & I, it will kind of give an insight into why Johnny thought I'd be a good writer for The Rum Diary, because it's about that mad, insane lifestyle. Even though it was written before Fear and Loathing, it is very much in the same ballpark.

What's your strategy for bringing that insanity to the screen, like with the LSD scene?

Well the LSD scene was the hardest. Tricky, tricky shooting. The moment in time becomes subjective. I had so many different approaches for that scene and I finally did it the way it is and found this piece of weird '40s music, the name of which escapes me. The rest is just live acting, you know.

And the cockfighting scenes? How tricky is it to shoot those in a way that they looked real but were safe for the animals?

Oh my god, yeah, we had the animal rights people there day and night. I mean, not only for the cocks, but also for the lobsters. [Laughs]

For the turtle with the rhinestones?

Oh yeah, they were there on top of all of those things. In the movie, those roosters really appeared to be fighting each other, but they never ever touched each other in reality. Both of them were harnessed with fishing wire, and they were never allowed to touch each other. And so by moving the camera around and shooting a lot of film, we were able to fabricate the sense that these animals were fighting each other, which incidentally is quite legal in Puerto Rico. We could've just said, "Oh, it's legal here. Let's just shoot it. It's like bullfighting in Spain." But I'm an animal lover. So we were very cognizant of not in any way harming or hurting anything. Also, our spurs were just made out of foam rubber. And so we got full certificates from the animal welfare people saying no animals in any way were endangered or harmed in this film. And they weren't. And we had the most amazing trainer. He trained the chicken for eight weeks to look at another chicken and run from it. It's amazing. I don't know how he did it. Even the one that sits on top of Salas' [Michael Rispoli of The Sopranos] head in the car chase, that was trained for weeks to sit on somebody's hat. And so the hat was kind of rigged with chicken wire to hold onto. And so it just stood there. That's what it did. They were great performers, star roosters. They're amazing, those birds. I was told by the wranglers that if you tied one of them up facing another one and put feed between them, they would stare at each other and starve to death. They wouldn't eat the food because they're just so aggressive toward each other. They just stand there and stare until they starve. Amazing, isn't it?

That seems like a metaphor.

There probably is one, isn't there? Something for the Cold War or something.

You cast Aaron Eckart to represent the alpha American male. What is it about him that makes him this alpha American male?

Tthe reason that I wanted Aaron was that if you've got a film star of the stature of Johnny Depp, you've got to have someone of a star stature next to him because I wanted an unknown girl in the film [to play Chenault, Thompson's obsession] and Amber Heard is virtually unknown. She's done two or three things. You know, she was heard of but she wasn't, like, a film star. I believe that she will be one one day. So I needed someone to balance the power of Johnny on screen, and I wanted someone who didn't look like him. Aaron is blonde and kind of Teutonic-looking, and Johnny has more of a Latin look. I like Aaron's work a lot and I think he stuffed a lot into it. I think he did it well.

Did he get into the Hunter S. Thompson spirit even though he had to represent the straight-laced man?

Well, I didn't have a lot to do with Aaron off set. The hours are so long and the only reason I was doing that movie was because of Johnny. And Johnny was kinda like my pal. Any time off or at the end of a shooting day, we'd go to Johnny's place and listen to some music and have a glass of wine and talk about the next day and talk about literature. Both he and I are bibliomaniacs. Very curiously, we both love the same writers. So we would talk about the writers that we loved. And we'd share very similar interests. So I felt a great affinity for Johnny. And so what little time was available, I'd normally spend with him.

It's taken the film a while to get released. Can you tell me what the struggle has been to get the film out?

Basically, as I understand it, the sheer volume of stuffI mean, originally we were going to come out in the slot for when Johnny did a movie called The Tourist. And that kind of snatched our slot. Next thing was the Pirates movie, and contractually, they won't allow a movie to come out before the Pirates movie for six months or something, some bulls--t. I don't know what that is. So were like an airplane up over the airfield waiting for the other one to land. We got pushed back 12 months, which didn't please anybody including me, but that's the way it is. I think it was just the amount of movies that Johnny had coming out, and you can't release them all at once. So The Rum Diary was the easiest one to sort of tread water with, I guess because it was the cheapest one or the smallest one or whatever. But I'm not a distributor or a producer. I don't know the actual mechanics of any of this. But that's what I'm told.

How are you going to celebrate when the film finally comes out?

How am I going to celebrate?

Yes.

Oh God, I don't know. [Laughs] If the film got great reviews, I'd buy myself and Johnny and my wife a really nice present. If it doesn't do so well, I'll do exactly the same thing. I don't know. We'll probably drink some wine. Everybody who makes a movie wants it to be a great success. But you can't cut your throat if it isn't.

 

 

Tags: Bruce Robinson, Johnny Depp, The Rum Diary
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